I played a lot of baseball in my youth. Through all the years I took the sport seriously, I had a pitching coach named Lefty. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was the best teacher I ever had. I remember at some point, he started helping me throw a slider. The slider is a tricky pitch. It’s the epitome of easy to learn, hard to master. The technique for throwing a slider isn’t hard to grasp, but it can be very easy to hang. After weeks of struggling with the slider on my own, Lefty was able to fix it with a single sentence. It amazes me to this day.
The thing about Lefty was that he was very large and fairly immobile. This can be challenging for someone trying to teach something as kinetic as pitching. Our interactions were almost always through words. He would sit five feet away from the mound, watch my mechanics and provide advice through words. Most coaches in my 12+ years playing baseball had a physically-involved method of teaching. They would physically adjust you or explain the mechanics by performing them. This was not an option for Lefty so he relied on imparting entirely physical concepts through verbal explanation. Looking back, I don’t think I fully understood how amazing of an accomplishment that was.
In many ways, this is what designers are tasked to do. Designers have a hands-off relationship with the people they’re trying to introduce concepts to. Success relies on teaching a person to interact with the product without “physically adjusting” them. The interface is most often the conduit of education. It’s one of the most important yet least discussed topics of what we do.
When the iPhone was first revealed, Apple was introducing concepts that were entirely new to the general public. Their ad campaigns were half showcase, half school lesson.
Their ads were intended to generate demand, but they also doubled as a 30 second primer on how to use the device. The iPhone ended up being intuitive to so many people because they had been pummeled with ads showing them how to use it.
Most products don’t have the luxury of nation-wide ad campaigns, so they need to rely on the product itself to educate. There’s less and less emphasis on separate materials (such as manuals) to teach people how to use a product. Now, the expectation is that the product teaches you how to use itself. Today’s most “intuitive” designs are great examples of effective and discrete education.
With all that said, I would venture to guess that most designers don’t see their role having much to do with educating. Given the trajectory of digital product design, I would argue it’s now a core role. Most users start with no experience using a product. When the design succeeds, they learn how to use it appropriately and optimally. A lot of learning happens in between those points. A designer can either help that process along or leave it up to the end user to learn (or not learn) on their own.
I wonder how the trade would change if designers embraced the educator role. I personally believe it significantly changes the designer’s de facto training and professional focus. The focus of communication would lean more heavily on clarity and cognition rather than aesthetic.
I’m still trying to match what Lefty was able to do with all our years working together. As the years go by, I feel like I should have spent more time trying to translate what he did with me than obsessing over kerning and negative space. I want to teach people to throw a slider in one sentence.